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Eurocrisis is back

Klaus UlrichOctober 17, 2014

Poor economic data, falling stock prices, rising unemployment: Europe is still in crisis mode. Without countermeasures, the survival of the eurozone and its currency might be at risk, senior economists have told DW.

Plan B Irland Krisengraffitis
Image: DW/M. Hartlep

Many economists agree: The risk that Europe may stagger back into the economic abyss is far from over.

"We now have a different form of the euro crisis," analyst Robert Halver of Baader Bank said in an interview with DW. "Previously, the national debt was the focus in discussions of the eurozone crisis. Now, the focus is on the risk of a renewed recession."

In many countries of the euro zone, serious reforms to improve regional competitiveness had not been undertaken, Halver said.

"But only economic reforms will bring business investment into these countries and so generate stable new jobs," he added. He feared a return to "the times of debt barbarianism, where government policymakers think they must try to stabilize the economy by taking on more debt." That, in his view, would be very dangerous.

More dangerous than the Lehman bankruptcy

The economist and investment manager Max Otte was one of the few economists who predicted, in 2006, the world financial crisis that started a year or two later. He believes that the current economic downturn could prove even more dangerous than the one set off by the Lehman bankruptcy of 2008.

"The financial crisis six years ago started with a panic. People realized that the world financial system might break down. We solved the problem with great heaps of cheap money," Otte told DW.

"However, there was a failure to follow up with structural reforms, and a number of fundamental problems were not addressed, let alone solved."

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Accumulation of negative trends

The consequences of these policy failures are now becoming apparent - in an accumulation of negative trends. The national debts of most European countries have risen even further, and southern Europe is in a catastrophic depression with mass unemployment. The existing economic policy package has failed to regenerate growth.

International political developments are making things even worse. "The economic war we are stupidly waging with Russia has primarily harmed Germany and Austria. ISIS and the situation in the Middle East are further worsening the mood," said Otte.

Moreover, political instability in Europe has been a "gift" for the United States economy: "Corporations are beginning to shift their investments from Europe to America."

Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research, fears the European economy will stay weak for years to come. He recently told reporters that he saw no easy way out of the bad situation in the southern euro countries, adding: "The crisis is very clearly not over yet."

Alarming signal from Italy

The Ifo Institute has observed volumes of capital flight from Italy in recent months that were last seen before the ECB's eurozone government bond support pledge two years ago. 67 billion euros of capital were withdrawn from the country in August and September, when creditors refused to replace old loans with new ones.

"This is an alarming signal that shows the capital markets are once again losing confidence," said Sinn.

In 2012, the European Central Bank announced it was prepared to buy government bonds in unlimited quantities if necessary, in order to stabilize bond yields. It thereby defused the crisis - without, so far, having had to actually buy any government bonds.

ECB President Mario Draghi at press conference in Frankfurt, June 2012
ECB chief Mario Draghi said in July 2012: "Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough."Image: Reuters

Since then, eurozone countries have been able to borrow on favorable terms, at low rates of interest. That has served as an invitation for national governments to take on additional debt. This has masked, but not solved, economic problems. At some point, the new debt must be repaid, and that will become more difficult as the accumulated debt load grows.

"At this point, we have countries in the eurozone taking on new debt in order to pay back previous loans to some extent," said Robert Halver.

Courageous action

However, Halver also criticized the austerity policy of the German government, saying it must not slavishly stick to the goal of a budget surplus for 2015.

"We saw very clearly in 2008 how a boom became a massive downturn" as a result of the global financial crisis - and budgetary flexibility staved off even worse consequences.

Hans-Werner Sinn argues for a bold approach to the problem of excessive debt in the crisis countries. He proposes a "haircut", or partial write-off of debt at the expense of creditors.

"My opinion is we won't make progress in the eurozone if we stick to small measures."

Max Otte said the European Union is far too dependent on America, and allows its economic crisis management policies to be dictated "from the outside", by Anglo-American interests. Their policy prescription is to use the central bank to pump ever more cheap money into the financial markets. Otte believes Europe should avoid following their example.

Drastic measures

Like Hans-Werner Sinn, Otte is calling for really drastic measures: "There are things that must changed in the construction of the euro, that's the important thing," he told DW.

His recommendations include an immediate exit of some peripheral countries from the eurozone, but not from the European Union - "we need to emphasize that again and again," said Otte.

Waiting and hoping that the crisis might somehow sort itself out at some point is not a serious option. The situation is too dangerous for that. In the same spirit, Robert Halver said: "We need to take effective measures now. We can not accept any further worsening of the economic crisis. In the extreme, even the existence of the eurozone and its currency will be in play."